When it comes to protecting the public, the high cost of hoarding data has grown painfully clear. "In the wake of Sept. 11, we discovered that information on the hijackers' activities was available through a variety of databases at the federal, state and local government levels as well as within the private sector," said President Bush in a report on homeland security initiatives in his 2003 budget. Brought together, those scattered facts might have produced enough useful information to prevent a tragedy.

Today, there are widespread calls to weave a net of data tight enough to catch terrorists before they strike. A system combining records from the Immigration and Naturalization Service and state departments of motor vehicles, for instance, could raise an alarm when someone holding an expired visa applies for a license to transport hazardous materials. With this in mind, the president's budget proposes a program to help federal, state, local and relevant private-sector organizations share data in the name of homeland security.

Banks Do It

Technology to bring together data from disparate computer systems already exists. Steve Cooperman, director of the homeland security solutions group at Oracle Corp., pointed to the way financial institutions routinely and securely share data. "You can use any credit card anywhere in the world, and it all works," he said.

The desire is strong and the technology is ready, but agencies still have much to do before they can seamlessly share information on suspected terrorist activities. For one thing, they need to agree on an architecture.

One common approach is to collect data from disparate sources in a data warehouse. In Los Angeles County, a warehouse developed by Oracle merges data from multiple agencies, including the county court systems, two sheriff's department systems, the juvenile justice system, the state's DMV and Department of Justice systems and county, state and FBI warrant systems. In the past, a judge or arresting officer had to search these databases individually to find information on a suspect.

"We used to take 45 to 90 minutes to identify someone. Now it takes two and a half seconds," Cooperman said. "And what used to be 20 percent accuracy in identification is now 98 percent."

A second approach is to develop interfaces between systems that belong to different agencies, so an application running on one can employ data stored in another. Fairfax, Va.-based webMethods offers software to accomplish this, using standards such as XML and EDI to move data between systems.

WebMethods is talking with one potential partner about a homeland security application that will allow DMV systems to tap information about foreign students, said Al Fox, the company's director of public sector operations. "WebMethods would be the glue to pull the information back and forth," he said.

The webMethods software can also provide a conduit for moving data from several applications into a central data warehouse, said Ivy Eckerman, a company spokeswoman.

The Clearinghouse Option

Pennsylvania's integrated law enforcement system, Justice Network (JNET), follows yet another method. JNET's stakeholders didn't want to alter their legacy systems, or write interfaces among them, in order to share information, said Linda Rosenberg, executive director of JNET. "So many systems had failed in the past because agencies had to conform to some type of standard, and they built a data warehouse," which proved very expensive, she said.

A Web-based system, JNET serves as a central clearinghouse and translator for data residing with the state's law enforcement and justice agencies. County and local agencies contribute by uploading data to the state agencies' systems.

Users query JNET through a common, browser-based interface. A user who makes a query, such as entering the name of a suspect, receives relevant information from all participating databases. The system also notifies other agencies when events

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer